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Cambronne's Words

By John White, FINS
(submitted by Bob Elmer)
Honorary Secretary of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee

The French have it that when the last square of the Old Guard, surrounded at Waterloo, were invited to surrender rather than be annihilated, their commander, General Count Etienne Cambronne shouted back, "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" - the heroic, "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!". Of course, the rest of the world thinks he replied, "Merde!" - the much more earthy French expression, "Sh-t!"

What did Cambronne really say?

An old gentleman in Plancenoit thought he knew the answer. He named his house "le mot de Cambronne" - The word of Cambronne - singular.

However, the following correspondence, provided by John White, Honorary Secretary of the Association of Friends shows that Cambronne actually said nothing - he had already been captured!

Letter to The Times - 16th June 1932


Waterloo Day is close at hand, and a broadcast will be transmitted by the BBC on June 18th. In a foreword appearing in the Radio Times it is stated that Cambronne, who commanded a portion of Bonaparte's Old Guard, after shouting, "La veille Garde muert, mais elle ne se rend pas," surrendered his sword to a drummer boy. It is I believe to Victor Hugo that we owe the legend that Cambronne, when called upon to surrender, made use of an expression which would not be printable in any respectable journal. Thus are facts distorted and thus are legends made. It might interest some of your readers if I were permitted to give them a personal reminiscence which is, I think, to the point.

In 1850, when I was about seven years of age, I was taken by my father to visit General Hugh Halkett, who then commanded the King's Army at Hanover. The old general seemed to have taken a fancy to me, and often allowed me to accompany him on his morning walks through the groves and avenues of Kingly Herrenhausen. As I knew that this fine old gentleman had served in the German Legion at Waterloo, that great subject often cropped up, and he told me many things which I have long forgotten. But I well remember his telling me that he alone took Cambronne prisoner. He said that this gallant French officer, who was reconnoitering on foot at some distance from and ahead of his troops, was taken completely by surprise when Halkett, who was mounted on a spirited Irish horse, galloped close up to the French lines, seized him by his aiguillette, and dragged him breathless into the British lines. "If you are an officer," said the unfortunate commander when he had recovered a little from the exertions he had undergone, "if you are an officer, here is my sword." Cambronne was taken to England as a prisoner of war, and there died; but he certainly did not ride off triumphant with one of the immortal slogans of history.

Faithfully yours,

Richard Edgecombe

Edgebarrow Manor, Crowthorne

Letter to The Times - 18th June 1932


My grandfather, the Rev. William Leeke, at the age of 17 carried the regimental Colour of the 52nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry at the battle of Waterloo, and afterwards wrote his reminiscences. In these he says, referring to the capture of Cambronne, "Colonel Hugh Halkett, with his Hanoverian battalion, got so near to one of the squares of the Imperial Guard that he made a dash at General Cambronne, who was at some little distance from the square, and took him prisoner with his own hands." This corroborates your correspondent's interesting reminiscence, at the same time refuting the statement of the BBC foreword.

My grandfather evidently doubted whether the words attributed to Cambronne were ever spoken by him, as in a long footnote on the subject he says, "Bertrand presented to General Michel's widow a stone from the Emperor's tomb on which he had inscribed, 'A la Baronne Michel, veuve du Général Michel tué à Waterloo, oú il répondit aux sommations de l'ennemi par ces paroles sublimesé La Garde muert et ne se rend pas'." (To Baronne Michel, widow of General Michel killed at Waterloo, where he replied to the summons of the enemy for their word... The Guard dies and does not surrender).

Yours faithfully,

W M Leeke

Kirk Langly Rectory, Derby

Letter to The Times - 18th June 1932


I was greatly interested to see in today's issue of The Times (16-6-32) the record of Cambronne's capture at Waterloo by my great-great-grandfather, General (then Colonel) Sir Hugh Halkett, and perhaps the following will shed some light on the incident.

According to records, Etienne Cambronne was born at Nantes in 1770, so at the time of Waterloo he was 45, and there is in our possession a singularly unflattering French print of the gentleman in question in uniform, with the bare record of his capture at Waterloo by "le Colonel Hugh Halkett."

Underneath however, stands a naked sword encircled by a laurel wreath and the following pointed inscription:

"La Garde muert, elle ne se rend pas."

"Cambronne se rend, il ne muert pas."

(The Guard dies, it does not surrender. Cambronne surrenders, he does not die).

Yours faithfully,

Stuart Bradshaw

35 South Eaton Place, SW1


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